If A Third Of Booze Sales Are Going To Underage Drinkers, Maybe Laws Against Underage Drinking Don't Work


“In 2009 underage customers accounted for 30% of all alcohol consumed in this state totaling $69 million in sales,” said Rep. Joe Heilman on the floor of the North Dakota House today where he was arguing in favor of a bill to increase penalties for those who deliver booze to underage drinkers.

KXNet – Bismarck/Minot/Williston/Dickinson

I’ll admit, I was a little surprised at that number. I can’t vouch for its validity – a lot of the numbers thrown around about underage drinking are based on less-than-scientific data from things like school surveys, and quantifying illicit booze sales is no easy task – but let’s suppose it’s true. With all the money spent on educating teens about underage drinking, with all the effort law enforcement puts into stings on bars and liquor stores aimed at stopping underage booze sales, if a third of all the booze sold in the state is going to underage drinkers anyway does anyone actually think that’s a problem we can solve with more laws?

The problem with prohibition policies – and the ban on under-21 drinking is just a watered down sort of prohibition – is that they don’t do anything to address demand. That was true when America, as a nation, tried to outlaw alcohol entirely at the dawn of the last century. It’s true now as we fight a “war on drugs” which really hasn’t done anything to slow drug use, or put a dent in drug availability. And it’s true with underage drinking, where tougher laws and more stringent enforcement measures aren’t getting kids to drink less.

A major problem with our attitude about drinking is that we seem focused on trying to stop drinking, instead of teaching responsible drinking habits. And a big contributing factor to that are prohibitionist policies which give parents little flexibility in introducing kids to alcohol.

Under HB1458, which Rep. Heilman was speaking in favor of and which passed the House today on a 61-33 vote, a dad who lets his son drink a beer while they’re out fishing or a mom who lets her daughter have a wine cooler with a movie is a criminal guilty of a Class A Misdemeanor, just one step down from a felony. A third offense is a Class C Felony.

Maybe part of North Dakota’s, and the nation’s, problem with underage drinking (not to mention college-age drinking) is that anyone who tries to introduce kids to alcohol in a responsible way is a criminal under the law.